Pho started out as a single restaurant in Clerkenwell in 2005, set up by an English couple (Stephen and Juliette Wall) who enjoyed their travels in Asia and changed careers in order to try and recreate their street food culinary experiences back in a restaurant setting in London. This is actually the tenth branch of what is now a clearly successful chain. The restaurant is near Turnham Green tube on the busy Chiswick High Road, and has simple décor and a casual atmosphere. There were a few basic wines starting at £14.95, such as Condesa de Leganza Tempranillo at £16 for a wine that retails at around £7.
Green papaya salad (£8.25) came with, in this case, prawn crackers and “tiger prawns”. The latter was a pretty optimistic assessment of some distinctly small shrimps, more kittenish than tigerish in scale. A true tiger prawn can reach a foot in length, these more like an inch. However the salad itself was pleasant enough, the papaya mixed in with coriander and peanuts and with a light chilli dressing. For me the dressing was a bit too tentative, but the small prawns were at least tender and the portion size very generous (a good 11/20).
For the pho itself I opted for a spicy chicken version (£8.50). A large bowl of soup came with additional condiments on the side, in case a diner wanted added coriander, Vietnamese mint, lime or chilli. The soup was very good, with plenty of flavour in the moderately spicy stock. The chicken itself had little flavour but at least had decent texture, and overall this was a very enjoyable bowl of soup, essentially a meal in itself (13/20).
If you had three courses and drank wine then a typical bill with service and coffee would come to around £35 a head. My bill for two dishes and water to drink came to £21 with service, which was friendly if a bit too keen to upsell. After I ordered what turned out to be a very large salad and a noodle soup, the waiter was still trying to sell me more food, when either dish would have been sufficient for lunch. Also, when my water glass was still almost full the waiter poured the remainder of the bottle into a now almost overflowing glass and asked if I would like another bottle. I know that these items are high margin, but give a customer a break here. Overall Pho seems to deliver reasonably well on its promise of pleasant Asian street food, especially in the soup department. Just days after opening, it was virtually full on a Monday lunch.
At a second meal I tried a few starters to get a broader idea of the standard of the dishes. Crispy spring rolls (£3.95) with lettuce and herbs with a vegetable filling were decent enough, the batter avoiding greasiness, though the contents of the rolls were rather bland (11/20). Pork and lemongrass meatballs (£6.25) were served on skewers, with lettuce leaves to wrap the meatballs and dip into a sweet chilli sauce. Again, these were harmless enough, but lacked much flavour; even the chilli dip was rather tentative (11/20).
Fried baby squid (£6.50) with a salt, pepper and lime dip avoided chewiness in the squid, though as part of the recurring theme there was little inherent flavour in the squid (10/20). Savoury Vietnamese crispy crepes (£7.25) with a filling of beansprouts, chicken prawn and Vietnamese mint was quite large in size, but was dominated by the bulking out of the beansprouts. The thin pancake was pleasant enough, but it needed more spice to enliven the dish (11/20). Sugar snap peas with garlic were cooked properly, but I think they would have been better served hot than cold (11/20). Pho xao prawn noodles (£9.25) were wok-fried with lemongrass, Asian greens, chill, peanuts and fish sauce. The noodles had pleasant texture, though again the flavours seemed quite subdued (11/20).
As before, portions were large, and service from our Canadian waitress was chirpy and efficient. The bill came to £32 per head with some beer and mineral water to drink. This meal was adequate, but there was a consistent lack of punchy flavour, perhaps catering to the perceived tastes of the mass market. Another time I think I would just stick to the pho soup, which was easily the best dish across the two meals. Barely two weeks after opening there was a lengthy queue out of the door waiting for tables (there are no reservations). It is easy to over-order at Pho, but you could just come in and order a big bowl of noodle soup and that would probably be enough for most people. The food here is hardly thrilling, but was entirely competent and was decent enough value given the generous portions served.